It’s Official: OSHA Overstates Claims of Study on Inspections

(cross-posted from FreeEnterprise.com)

Over in OSHA land, the agency is making a lot of noise over a recently published study that claims OSHA inspections save lives without costing jobs or other deleterious effects.  The study examined the impact of random inspections in California (a state with their own safety agency, not covered by federal OSHA) by comparing injury rates between employers who were inspected and those who were not during the years 1996-2006 .  The study was published in Science suggesting that it has intellectual validity.  According to the summary of the study:

“[S]ome observers claim that workplace regulations damage firms’ competitiveness and destroy jobs and others argue that they make workplaces safer at little cost to employers and employees. We analyzed a natural field experiment to examine how workplace safety inspections affected injury rates and other outcomes… Compared with controls, randomly inspected employers experienced a 9.4% decline in injury rates.  We find no evidence that these improvements came at the expense of employment, sales, credit ratings, or firm survival.”

However,  OSHA’s assertions that this study ends all debate about the value of inspections are subject to several points of clarification and limitation:

  • Claims that OSHA or state safety agency inspections are responsible for job loss or other specific negative effects are simply a straw man argument that no one has been making.
  • The authors  casually conflate inspections with regulations.  Apparently, (they offer no explanation for interchanging these terms) their thinking is that without regulations, there would be no reason for inspections.  However, these two concepts are entirely independent of each other.  Regulations have an impact regardless of whether a company gets inspected as the employer seeks to comply with them and has to absorb that burden.   At most this study examines the impact of inspections but has nothing to say about the impact of regulations.  Furthermore, we have consistently noted that regulations are necessary to provide guidance and set limits. What we have opposed are poorly developed regulations that are not adequately supported with science, data, or analysis of their impacts.  Mixing and matching significant terms like regulations and inspections undermines the supposed rigor and credibility of this study.
  • This study only looks at examples from 10 years in California. It says nothing about federal OSHA’s current “gotcha” mentality of focusing on ways to impose the maximum amount of penalty.  State safety agencies often conduct themselves differently and have more cooperative relationships with their employers and industries.  Indeed, federal OSHA has criticized Cal OSHA being out of synch with the federal OSHA’s approach to issuing serious and repeat violations.
  • Similarly, the study makes no attempt to look at qualitative aspects of inspections—how did the inspector conduct themselves and whether they provided any information for employers to improve their safety practices?  Inspections can be informative as well as punitive.  To the extent they help educate employers about what should be done, rather than just cite them for what wasn’t done, the inspection will have a greater positive impact.
  • This study says nothing about comparing outcomes from more enforcement with outcomes from more resources being put into cooperative programs or compliance assistance.  We know that the current OSHA administration believes inspections and harsh enforcement are the panaceas towards better workplace safety (“ Enforcement of the law is OSHA’s most important tool for encouraging employers to provide safe workplaces.”—Assistant Secretary David Michaels, February 6, 2012) but this study does not even attempt to suggest that other approaches might yield better results.

For federal OSHA to claim that this study confirms the value of their inspections or their increased reliance on inspections is clearly overstating the value of this study.

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